The 2016 presidential race is just beginning. Yet we already can say this much: Despite a bump in the polls, and the fact that some conservatives consider him the prototype for successful leaders, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would be a terrible choice for the GOP nomination.
Of course, Republicans have made bad choices before. A recent Des Moines Register survey found Walker to be the first pick of 15% of the GOP faithful likely to attend the Iowa Caucus.
So why would Walker be a bad choice? Three reasons.
The world is a dangerous place. We can’t afford another commander-in-chief with no foreign policy experience who doesn’t understand America’s role in the world. As the governor of Wisconsin — as opposed to U.S. senator (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz) or a former U.N. ambassador (John Bolton) — Walker’s diplomatic experience is limited to settling disputes with Minnesota during football season. He would be learning on the job while rogue actors like ISIS, Iran, Russia and North Korea threaten Americans, create unrest and perpetuate acts of terror. There are times to look to the states and elect leaders who can focus the nation’s attention on domestic priorities like the economy, and there are times to look for leaders with a firm handle on foreign policy because the stakes are too high to gamble on that front. Guess which era we’re living in.
Built-in enemies are extra baggage. Walker has repeatedly fought organized labor in Wisconsin — over collective bargaining, an attempted recall, running for re-election — and scored impressive victories. But Walker has also antagonized that special interest, which will spend tens of millions of dollars in the presidential election to settle the score. Unions might otherwise feel ambivalent about a Hillary Clinton candidacy, especially with the prospect of an insurgent campaign by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who would likely embrace more firmly the divisive rhetoric about income equality that union members love to hear. If Walker is the GOP nominee, ambivalence will be trumped by anger. An activated and animated base of union supporters throwing money at the Democrats is a headache that Republicans don’t need.
Finally, courage matters. Walker is not eager to grab hold of thorny issues. On immigration, he likes sound bites, declaring his opposition to “amnesty” and his support for “securing the border.” He uses platitudes about how ours is “a country both of immigrants and of laws.” During a recent appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” host Martha Raddatz asked Walker what he would do about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The governor responded that, while he didn’t support the immigration bills in Congress, he did think the debate needs a “healthy balance” and he was not “advocating” the deportation of all illegal immigrants. Finally, he said, “we need to enforce the laws in the United States, and we need to find a way for people to have a legitimate legal immigration system in this country, and that does not mean amnesty.” Clear as mud, eh?
Walker also has difficulty on common-sense issues that should not be all that thorny, like evolution. On a trip to London this week, presumably intended to beef up his “foreign policy credentials,” the governor bobbled a question on the topic and had to issue a follow-up statement.
The only benefit that Republicans could reap from nominating Walker is that, while he is probably not ready to lead the country, he could settle an argument within the party that the GOP must resolve and put behind it if Republicans are ever going to win another presidential election.
Most of the conservatives I know who think Walker should be the GOP nominee are convinced that Republicans keep making the same mistake of nominating moderates. The secret to beating Democrats, they say, is to draw contrasts and stay true to conservative principles.
Republicans are confused: Do they nominate a moderate with wider appeal or a “true conservative” loyal to the party’s principles? The way that those on the far right see it, they’ve failed twice with a moderate nominee (Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012). If the party nominates another moderate in 2016 (former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former New York Gov. George Pataki, etc.), and loses again, that faction will continue to delude itself into thinking that the GOP must nominate a rigid conservative to win.
There is only one cure for this delusion: Republicans need to scratch that itch and nominate a person they believe to be a strong conservative. Walker will do nicely. And when they nominate him, and lose anyway, they can put this argument to rest. Republicans will have run out of excuses. Only then, can they achieve the epiphany that could save them from going the way of the Whigs: Voters aren’t just rejecting the GOP’s messenger but its message.
To many Americans, Republicans are mean-spirited, intolerant, xenophobic and reactionary obstructionists who care only about the rich, preserving the status quo and protecting the majority, and who are better at explaining what they’re against than spelling out what they’re for.
Much of what we hear from Republican candidates — especially those trying to woo conservative voters — reinforces that perception. If the GOP crafts a better message, it won’t have to worry so much about choosing the right messenger.
But first, the party has an argument to settle. So, at the moment, there is only one message that matters: Run Walker, Run.